Together with a growing appreciation of the importance of human rights, there is a greater awareness worldwide of the need for the protection not only of the environment, but also of animals and their rights. — His Holiness the Dalai Lama*
I often write about the interdependence of humans, animals, and our shared ecosystems. Now more than ever, in particularly dire ways, we can see how these three are linked through suffering. Along with the ways in which humans depend on many kinds of animals, there are also myriad ways in which we can care for them and even try to improve their lives. On the darker side, however, humans maintain various industries that create and enforce the systematic suffering of animals to meet human desires that are not basic needs but our unnecessary desires or frivolities. One such business is the fur trade.
In recent weeks in Canada, Denmark, and the US, mink farms have been in the spotlight for spreading a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus among captive animals. This has once again brought to light the argument for ending government support of fur farms in various countries. In 2019, the Irish government pledged to pass a bill that was supposed to close down their mink farms. The bill was never passed.
The situation in Ireland is compelling from a Buddhist point of view, as only three families there still raise mink and sell their pelts. It should not be difficult for their government to insist on closing these three farms and supporting the three families in financially transitioning to a different type of farming that does not involve the slaughter of animals. I noted that 120,000 mink are kept on these three farms, making the karmic toll for a few people quite heavy. From a Buddhist point of view, even one being has the right to live and thrive, just as we ourselves wish.
Animals on fur farms suffer from many kinds of harm: danger from parent animals and human captors, cruelty, deprivation, and denial of access to their natural habitats and behaviors. From a human point of view, we tend to prioritize larger animals over small ones, or those we perceive to be cute or our pets. This involves subjectivity and a denial of the intrinsic right to live and be free from harm. Mink in particular need to spend time in water as part of their natural habitat, and they are denied this intrinsic right by being kept in small wire cages without even a firm base on which to stand. From the point of view of karma, breeding and killing animals on a large scale is not at all a positive vocation. For the animals themselves, it involves continuous stress, fear, and suffering. And now there is the possibility of contracting the novel coronavirus.
The Canadian non-profit wildlife preservation group The Fur-Bearers states:
Countries including Denmark, France, Italy, Greece, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Lithuania, and the U.S. have all identified signs of the virus on mink farms, leading to widespread preventative culls. In Denmark, a mutated form of the virus was identified that could have negative impacts on vaccine efficacy, scientists warned. Farmed mink, who are susceptible to coronaviruses, are also kept in conditions that promote the quick spread or mutation of viruses.
We must remember as compassionate humans that these conditions, first and foremost, are detrimental to the animals themselves. Secondly, they are conducive to the spread of various diseases, all of which make fur farming a very negative activity from a karmic standpoint.
If there is any silver lining on the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, one might be the closure of mink farms and other fur farms around the world. Unfortunately, the spread of the novel coronavirus among the mink populations has involved the culling (i.e. killing) of a very large number of mink. I believe that there are ways to phase out fur farms via a path of least harm to the animals. Can we not decrease breeding and eventually transition humans from a dependence on (or preference for) coats, hats, and other items made from fur to materials that cause less or no harm to sentient beings? We are always interdependent, but humans have the gift of planning, so we can envision and enact more compassionate strategies. When we consider how we eat, what we wear, where we build, and how we handle waste products, we must always consider the animals with whom we co-exist.
We cannot merely sit on our meditation cushions and chant prayers (such as the following) without also taking action in the political and social realms. We must ensure that sentient beings have the causes of happiness and are free from the causes of suffering. This is why we take refuge as Buddhists in the first place. We aspire to arouse compassion for all beings and then we put our energy into enacting that compassion in everyday life. This will reduce our negative karmic accumulation and contribute to the freedom and liberation—in this and future lives—of our fellow animal beings.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist prayer
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separate from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in boundless equanimity, free from attachment to close ones and rejection of others.**
* Animal care in the Buddhist tradition (Tibetan Buddhist Art)
** The Four Immeasurables (Padmasambhava Buddhist Center).
Ireland signals likely end to fur farming with cull of 120,000 mink (Politico)
COVID-19: Danish farmers protest government’s mink slaughter policy (Euronews)
What These Rescued Foxes Tell Us About Their Complexity (National Geographic)
ACTION ALERT: Tell Canada to take action on mink farms (The Fur-Bearers)